I was a high-school kid the first time I set foot in the Egyptian Theatre. The year was 1984, and two pals and I drove 50 miles north from rural Spanaway, Wash. to see Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple. Multiplexes were just starting to gobble up single-screen theaters, and movie viewing in general had changed inexorably thanks to the then-recent onset of cable TV and home video. In some ways it was the best of times for a nascent film nerd, but viewing a movie in a real movie palace—the kind of theater you only saw in the grandest old movies—seemed like a complete and total abstract to me.
The Egyptian changed all that. In the theater’s cavernous auditorium, I watched the Coen Brothers deconstruct film noir and twist it around like taffy, in a venue whose wonderfully old-school design aesthetic celebrated cinema without detracting from the action onscreen. Seeing Blood Simple in the Egyptian that night felt like looking at a vital, barrier-breaking work of art in a charmingly-appointed but never overbearing frame.
In the ensuing years, I accrued more great movie memories at the Egyptian than I could possibly count—meeting Russ Meyer’s pulp muse Tura Satana before Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! raged across the theater’s screen; hearing legendary session singers Merry Clayton and Tata Vega, stars of the Oscar-winning doc Twenty Feet from Stardom, bring down the house singing soul and rock classics during their Q & A for the film; buckling in and roaring headlong through twenty-plus years of mind-broiling SIFF Midnight Adrenaline selections. So when then-owners Landmark Theaters let go of the venue and shuttered it in June 2013, it felt like more than just another old business succumbing to the turn of the economic tide: An old friend was fixing to shuffle off this mortal coil.
Happily, rumors of the theater’s death were greatly exaggerated. The Egyptian’s doors tentatively reopened for the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival in May, and SIFF’s fundraising campaign to reclaim ownership of the theater rocketed past its initial goal later in the summer. Last week, a house packed with SIFF staff, donors and film fans of all stripes celebrated at a sneak preview prior to the theater’s formal Reopening Weekend.
The vast majority of the theater’s physical layout, SIFF Artistic Director Carl Spence admitted during his introduction, remains as-is. The decor, replete with its Egypt-themed flourishes, looks exactly the same as it did when the theater’s doors reopened four months ago. The most radical upgrades to the beloved theater have occurred on the audio-visual end: Twenty new SurroundSound speakers have been installed throughout the theater, with careful attention paid to the evenness of the mix (“Now you’ll be able to hear dialogue!” Spence joked). A recently-acquired 35mm projector is joining state-of-the-art digital projection equipment in the booth. SIFF’s also reputedly now giving one of the Egyptian’s most glaring faults—namely, the theater’s disproportionately tiny and privacy-deficient restrooms—top priority.
The reopening preview culminated with a screening of The Imitation Game, an imperfect but engaging new biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch as British mathematician/WWII codebreaker Alan Turing. It was nice to see and hear a handsome period drama making good usage of the theater’s upgraded A/V, but two days later the SIFF Egyptian’s first official weekend of business served up a bushel of certifiable classics, all with significant connections to the Egyptian’s joint history with SIFF. Sure enough, tucked between Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (which inaugurated the Egyptian’s conversion from a performance venue to a film-only theater in 1980) and Amelie (one of the longest-running films in the theater’s history) was a screening of Blood Simple. For me, it was like a high school homecoming—only with infinitely better cinematography, and way heavier on the double-crosses.